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Adrian Matejka

October 17, 2013

This story, by Jennifer Piurek, originally appeared in Inside IUBloomington.

Adrian Matejka planned to begin his research for a poetry collection about legendary boxer Jack Johnson by immersing himself in some hard-core workouts. He went to a local boxing gym in Eugene, Ore., where his family was living at the time, and talked to a trainer who agreed to take him on for two weeks.

“The trainer said, ‘We’ll start tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. First, you’ll run five miles,’” recalls Matejka, an IU alumnus who now an assistant professor teaching creative writing in IU Bloomington’s Department of English within the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I was like, ‘5:30, you say? How about you just give me a list of the exercises you would do?’” 

The notes on what Matejka could have done at the gym were a starting point for two years of in-depth, historical research that led to the poetry collection “The Big Smoke” (Penguin Poets/Penguin Group USA, 2013), told in the voice Matejka imagined for Johnson (1878-1946), the first African American heavyweight world champion.

On Oct. 16, “The Big Smoke” was announced as a finalist for the National Book Foundation’s 2013 National Book Award in Poetry.

This is Matejka’s third published poetry collection, after “The Devil’s Garden,” winner of the 2002 New York / New England Award from Alice James Books, and “Mixology,” which won the 2008 National Poetry Series and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. All three collections touch on fundamental questions about race, masculinity, and family, although in significantly different ways. Mixology explores “otherness” through hip hop-style sampling, while “The Devil’s Garden” juxtaposes history and autobiography through Matejka’s own tri-racial identity.

When he was growing up, Matejka said his family loved gathering around the TV to watch boxing together. No matter who was boxing on the screen, his mother always had the same comment, says Matejka: “She’d say, ‘yeah, but he’s no Jack Johnson.’”

He didn’t know who Johnson was, but the name was burned in Matejka’s brain. Years later, he saw a photo of Johnson that intrigued him enough to read up on the boxer, whose parents were emancipated slaves and who lived through the violent segregationism of Jim Crow.

“He was the first black heavyweight champion in the world back when that title mattered, when boxing was the most popular sport in the world,” Matejka says.

After two years of doing archival research on Johnson, Matejka decided to write the poems as first-person monologues from Johnson’s perspective. Rather than putting together a bunch of individual poems, he started piecing together the parts of Johnson’s biography, arranging them as a story, like a work of fiction. 

Matejka’s own intro to poetry came through his love for rap music.

In junior high, he and a friend would gather after basketball practice every week to write and record their own rhymes in his buddy’s basement. “They were the worst rhymes, and I’m glad those tapes are lost, but I never wanted to stop rhyming,” he says.

Later, inspired by Gordon Gecko in the movie “Wall Street,” Matejka entered IU as a business major. A month into the program, he knew he wanted to do something that involved books instead.

Then there was a cute girl in his class who said she liked poems. “I wish I had a cool story of origin, like ‘I was at the museum, and I was inspired,’ but really I was like, ‘you’re so pretty, I’m going to pretend I write poetry and try to figure out how to get to know you,'” Matejka says.

That didn’t work out, but there was something he loved about trying to distill emotion into language. Around the same time, he attended a reading at the Runcible Spoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, then an IU professor.

“It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had,” Matejka says. He remembers about 150 people packed in to the front room of the coffeehouse to hear Komunyakaa. It was cold outside, but a crowd was also huddled near outdoor speakers to hear the reading.

“He just killed it — I had never heard anything like that in my life,” Matejka recalls. “Poets already knew that there is only one person who reads like him, that no one is as good at delivering their work as him. But I was like, ‘If that’s what poetry is, I’m all over it. I want to be like this guy.’”

Inspired by the reading, Matejka became a double major in English and psychology, graduating from IU in 1995 and later going on to earn an MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

Matejka describes Komunyakaa as a heady, nuanced writer who is willing to let relatable moments of emotion shine through; one of his early collections, “Magic City,” was a huge influence on Matejka’s writing style.

In the Jack Johnson poetry collection, Matejka dug into the fighter’s history, trying to convey the emotions of the man behind the legend, in a way that reflects Komunyakaa’s continuing influence.

“I think that’s one reason there’s been a favorable response to some of these poems about Jack Johnson,” he says. “There’s an occasion for them. The poem might be about him and his life, his family, his mistresses or the time he bought his first car. Finding the point of history at which you as a listener or we as readers can engage is important to me. I want people to understand — I don’t want them to leave the page like ‘what is that?’”

Matejka refrained from watching the Ken Burns documentary on Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness,” until his book was nearly complete. “I didn’t want Ken Burns to tell me what to write about,” he said. He used the film as a final fact checking piece and was rewarded with photos he’d never seen of the boxer.

He hopes people who read “The Big Smoke” get a sense of Johnson’s struggles and his resilience.

And he wouldn’t mind if people realized that before the soft-rock singer-songwriter was a hard-hitting, groundbreaking fighter. “When I do readings, I always have to say, ‘This is Jack Johnson the boxer, not the guy who did the ‘Curious George’ soundtrack.’”